Shaka Senghor‘s extraordinary story does not have to be the only one of its kind. The Detroit native with dreams of becoming a doctor as a child got swept up in the Detroit drug game and spent 19 years in prison, with seven years in solitary confinement. Through reading and a relentless passion to write stories, the author changed his own narrative, and the course of his life.
Senghor’s memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption In An American Prison, and his inspiring story, has caught the attention of Russell Simmons, and ignited the important conversation about prison reform. And, writing down that he’d meet Oprah one day has led Senghor to her Super Soul Sunday couch.
We spoke with Senghor about valuable lessons from Oprah, and what hip-hop artists can do to push the conversation forward so we can keep children out of the prison system and into the lives they deserve.
Check out our exclusive below, and learn even more about Senghor’s story on Super Soul Sunday this weekend.
GlobalGrind: In an interview with The New York Times, you said, “Writing was freedom, so I wrote until my fingers were sore.” When was that moment when you said to yourself you’d change the narrative of your story, at a time when you didn’t have much control over your life?
Shaka Senghor: It came as a result of journaling, actually. I was writing journals, and trying to figure out, how did I go from wanting to be a doctor to serving my most promising years in solitary confinement? And through the process of journaling, I realized that I had never really accomplished anything of significance in my life. And during my incarceration I was an avid reader, I read everything from Malcolm X to Plato’s Republic and everything in between. And I just really knew the power of literature to transform lives, because I felt it happening in my own life. I just found this great escape through the power of the written word. It was like I wasn’t in prison as long as I was trapped between the pages in my ink pen. I preferred being outside of prison through the written word, than I did in prison.
GG: In solitary confinement, what kind of mental strategy did you come up with aside from writing? I always think of Nelson Mandela in a small prison cell doing pushups every day just to have a routine.
SS: I kind of set my days up like I was at school. So I would study different subjects. Most days I would study between 3-5 subjects in hourly increments. Then I would work out, I would do my pushups, I would jog around the cell, and then I would read. I would read until really late at night. And then I would start writing.
GG: People really struggle with making mistakes. What’s your advice for moving past what someone may consider a mistake, big or small? How do you let that go?
SS: One of my personal practices is recognizing that once a moment has occurred, it no longer exists. And I think the greatest tragedy, and the greatest trauma that we cause ourselves, is we continue to hold on to things that no longer exist, and replay them in our heads over and over again. All it does it brings up that same pain, when the episode is no longer there. There are many kinds of prisons. I think the worst kind of prisons are the ones that we erect in our minds, that tells us what we can’t do or that we’re limited. And a lot of times, those limitations are based on the past. Past failures, past judgments, past feelings. And if you can get past that stuff, then the world is infinite in terms of possibility. And that’s how I live my life.
GG: Kids are constantly getting messages thrown at them. There’s always a glorification of the drug game. Do you think those messages are negative influences, or is the media just blaming hip-hop?
SS: I think it’s more of the media blaming it on hip-hop. I’m really sensitive on that subject. I love hip-hop. And I think hip-hop has been the most important art form in my lifetime. I grew up alongside hip-hop. However, if you grow up on those blocks, you’ll realize that it mirrors the day to day realities that already exist. I’m very cautious about blaming rap for all the social ills. I mean, most of the social ills exist before the emergence of the harder street rap became the dominant sound. So I definitely think it’s a matter of putting things in its proper perspective and saying it’s American culture as a whole. America’s entertainment culture isn’t the healthiest, but I also feel like when you have a Kendrick Lamar, you have a J. Cole, and these other artists who are bringing another element back to the arena, I just think it balances everything out. I mean, some days I feel like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole all day, and other days I want to listen to Jeezy.
GG: You need Jeezy at the gym!
SS: Or even if you have a deadline or something to meet, you need some rhymes. You’re trying to get some deals done, you need some hustler music. That energy is necessary for me. I work my ass off, so I have to have motivation music at times. The arrogance, the recklessness, the ability to say, you know what, I’m going to make it against all odds.
GG: If you look at people like Jay Z, he made it out of the game, so you don’t have to go through that and that’s pretty similar to what you’re doing.
SS: Exactly. When you read Writing My Wrongs, it’s a gritty story, mine just happens to be real. But some of those guys rap off real experience. All I listened to was hip-hop when I write. I was writing about street culture, street life, things I experienced in that space.
GG: Your story has been well-received by so many publications, Russell Simmons, and now Oprah. When you were incarcerated, did you ever think that your message would spread the way it has?
SS: Once I began taking writing seriously, I wanted to be one of the best. So it’s just an unbelievable experience, it’s surreal at times. Russell, obviously he’s a hip-hop icon, and he’s been such a courageous leader in terms of criminal justice reform, and meeting him face to face and being able to just talk with him about why this work is so important, that was definitely one of those types of moments in my life that will remain with me forever. And for him to open up his home for that conversation to happen was just an incredible experience for me. It’s our people that’s losing right now. And Russell being a courageous leader in making sure that the hip-hop community is involved, and I would just love to see some of the younger guys pick up the mantle and join the fight. I actually told Oprah that I used to write down that I want to meet her one day. I believe that we attract the things in life we want with positive thinking.
GG: What was it like sitting on the Super Soul Sunday couch? Did Oprah leave you with any words of encouragement that you’ll always keep with you?
SS: Sitting on her couch was just so surreal. But then, so authentic. It seemed like I was just kicking it with a cool sister who I’ve been knowing forever, or an aunt or a cousin. It was just that type of vibe. And it’s something I’ll always remember. She is just such a sweetheart. She is so grounded in who she is that it just allows other people to just relax and be who they are. When I first met her, in my head I’m like, am I going to be like Ms. Winfrey? Ms. O? Ms. Oprah. And literally she just came up and was like, “Shaka Shaka Shaka Shaka!” And gave me a big hug. After the show we talked, and I asked her some advice about life, and she said the reason you find yourself getting overwhelmed is because you’re moving away from your center. Your center is your core values, that’s your belief system. She’s such a wealth of knowledge, and she has the biggest heart when it comes to sharing that.
Shaka Senghor’s memoir Writing My Wrongs is available now.
PHOTO CREDIT: Shaka Senghor